Bag-check datapoint of the day, AA edition

By Felix Salmon
October 17, 2011
bright idea -- stolen shamelessly from Eric Joiner -- that airlines might charge a negative bag-check fee.

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In March 2010, I had the bright idea — stolen shamelessly from Eric Joiner — that airlines might charge a negative bag-check fee.

A lot of people, of course, simply hate the idea of risking their bags being lost, and/or of milling around at a baggage carousel waiting for their bags to arrive. But many others would love the idea of getting paid, in dollars or in frequent-flyer miles, for checking their bags…

Passengers would get on and off planes more quickly, the airlines would make more money, and everybody would be happier.

My commenters were unimpressed. Wouldn’t this just encourage people to pack more and therefore add more weight to the plane? Wouldn’t it even — at the margin — encourage people to check empty cardboard boxes, and not even bother picking them up at the other end?

But lo — look what American Airlines has just announced!

Through November 22, 2011, American Airlines will offer AAdvantage® elite status members the opportunity to earn a minimum of 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for checking bags on flights departing Boston Logan International Airport (BOS).

Earning the bonus miles is easy – simply visit a BOS Self-Service Check-In machine on the day of your departure and follow the normal steps to check-in with bags. Check at least one bag under your own name to earn the bonus miles, which will automatically post to your AAdvantage account five business days after you have completed the travel associated with your itinerary. As a reminder, all AAdvantage elite status members are entitled to check two bags free of charge (within current size and weight limits) in addition to earning the bonus miles with this special offer.

By confining the offer to elite status members — you need to be gold or platinum — AA has presumably minimized the number of people who will try to check empty cardboard boxes, or pack more than they need. But this does seem to confirm that AA has begun to realize that its current incentives are misaligned: it’s got far too many business travelers wheeling on luggage which is carefully designed to go right up to the limit of the carry-on rules. As a result, it takes far too much time to get people on and off planes, whose luggage bins are permanently overstuffed. And flyers unhappily schlep heavy bags all over airports across the country.

I have no idea whether AA’s experiment will catch on — for the time being it’s only at one airport, and it’s only lasting a few weeks. And AA is in pretty desperate straits right now — it’s probably willing to try things it wouldn’t normally consider. But this is a big conceptual leap from AA’s current policy of charging extra for checked bags and therefore giving people an incentive not to check. If it’s a success, dare we hope that those bag-check fees might start going away?

(via the indispensable Joe Brancatelli)

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